James Franco: The man with the golden arm

Actor, artist, writer, musician – and tomorrow night, both co-host and nominee at the Oscars. But is Hollywood's new renaissance man spreading his talents just a little too thinly?

It was inevitable, really, that James Franco would one day discover Twitter.

When the 32-year-old film-maker, artist, author, musician, model, graduate student, qualified pilot and occasional drag queen sees a medium, he tends to try his hand at it. Yesterday, a week since he'd joined the microblogging site, he had fewer than 30 tweets to his name, and more than 166,000 followers: not Kanye territory, but not too shabby either. So far, he's tweeted some Photoshopped pictures of cats (an easy route to online popularity), a bit of oblique publicity for his latest art show in Los Angeles, and a selection of backstage snaps from rehearsals for tomorrow night's 83rd annual Academy Awards ceremony, of which he and the actress Anne Hathaway are the hosts.

It's a doubly exciting Sunday evening for Franco. Not only is he hosting the biggest event in the entertainment calendar, but he's also nominated for Best Actor (did I mention he acts?), and is said to be the biggest threat to Colin Firth's chances of winning. The Oscar nod is for his role in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, as real-life thrill-seeker Aron Ralston, who sawed off his own arm with a pen knife after getting it lodged beneath a boulder in the middle of nowhere, aka Utah. Yet he's also enjoying praise for his performance as the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, which opens this weekend.

As that pair of roles alone demonstrates, even his acting career is multi-faceted. Franco first came to the attention of casting directors playing movie star James Dean in a 2001 television biopic, for which he won a Golden Globe. That earned him a supporting role in the blockbuster Spider-Man franchise. Time magazine recently named him "the coolest guy alive", an accolade even Kanye would envy. If he were to find himself a Pirates of the Caribbean, Franco could be the next Johnny Depp: a smart, quirky heartthrob who became Hollywood's biggest star.

Yet he's also done much to sabotage that possibility: taking oddball cameos in television soap operas, diluting his film work with multiple college degrees, publishing and recording ventures, not to mention his artistic pursuits. As I write, he has two exhibitions on the go: "Unfinished", the aforementioned LA exhibit in collaboration with film director Gus Van Sant; and "The Dangerous Book Four Boys", his touring conceptual art show (described by The New York Times as "a confusing mix of the clueless and the halfway promising"), which is currently gracing Berlin.

Franco's mother Betsy, a writer and editor, surely shares the blame for her son's varied interests. His father Douglas has a more prosaic career as the boss of a shipping container firm, but Franco's grandmothers were artistic, too: an author and an art gallery owner. His parents met as students at California's Stanford University, and James was born in nearby Palo Alto in April 1978, the eldest of three brothers.

As a child he was a minor maths prodigy and even took an internship at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin. Palo Alto, as anyone who's watched Franco's Oscar rival Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network will be aware, is known for its tech community, not its arts scene. But Franco made the fateful decision to study at UCLA. He caught the acting bug and quit college after a year to pursue a film career, much to his parents' disappointment.

Unlike so many of the city's waiters, however, he was lucky, talented and – no small thing – damnably good-looking. Soon, he was cast by Judd Apatow in the cult series Freaks and Geeks. His character was a likeable stoner, always grinning amusedly at the antics of his hapless high school classmates, and it's this charming persona that he's cultivated off screen ever since (though he supposedly doesn't smoke, drink or take drugs).

Franco's filmography features its fair share of turkeys, and in 2006 he made a trio: Annapolis, Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde. While he was occupied with this mediocre fare, he decided to go back to college, presumably appeasing his parents and his intellectual appetites. First he returned to UCLA, where he studied three times the normal limit of extension courses per term, graduating in two years with excellent grades. In 2008, he moved to the East Coast, enrolling in three graduate programmes in New York, and one in North Carolina. Now, he's working towards a pair of PhDs: one in English at Yale, the other at Rhode Island's School of Design.

When a photograph surfaced online of Franco sleeping through a lecture at Columbia University, it was naturally asked whether anyone could seriously commit to so many endeavours – let alone a man maintaining a Hollywood acting career on the side. But when asked, his college professors insist he was fulfilling every course requirement admirably.

Meanwhile, he's done a stint on the trashy network soap General Hospital, as "Franco", a mysterious, murder-obsessed painter – a turn he hopes will be considered performance art. Last October, he published Palo Alto, a collection of short stories set in his childhood suburb. And during New York Fashion Week, he and fellow artist Kalup Linzy produced the soundtrack to designer Cynthia Rowley's catwalk show. An album is, allegedly, pending. "Franco is bursting with energy, and there's talent, too," writes the acclaimed critic David Thomson, in the new edition of his Biographical Dictionary of Film. "But at the moment I see more energy than talent."

Franco claims he's no busier than many other people, and that his high-profile merely gives the impression of extreme hyperactivity. He's inspired, he says, by collaborations – with artists like Linzy, directors such as Apatow, Boyle and Van Sant, even with his own family. His brother Dave, also an actor, appears in some of his skits for the comedy website Funnyordie. His grandmother appeared in an amusing viral on behalf of 127 Hours, accusing squeamish audiences of being "a bunch of pussies".

And then there's his girlfriend of six years, actress Ahna O'Reilly, who provides concrete proof of Franco's heterosexuality in the face of his continual flirtation with homoeroticism. Asked by one journalist about his predilection for gay roles – as Ginsberg in Howl, as Harvey Milk's lover in Milk – Franco teased, "Maybe I'm just gay." He also appeared in drag on the cover of the transvestism periodical Candy. Both incidents sent the web into paroxysms.

Long a fan of William Faulkner, Franco has announced his intention to produce a film version of the classic novel As I Lay Dying, as well as an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece Blood Meridian. (One imagines the English literature degree went to his head: neither project seems likely to win the hearts of studio financiers.) Franco's literary instincts have also drawn him to a new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, in which he'll appear opposite Nicole Kidman, and to the film Broken Tower, in which he plays the poet Hart Crane.

Franco, it appears, is yet to choose between superstardom and indie intellectualism. As well as Broken Tower, his forthcoming films include Your Highness, a medieval stoner comedy (yes, really), and the Rise of the Apes, a blockbuster reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise. As Franco himself has asked, "If the work is good, what does it matter? I'm doing it because I love it. Why not do as many things I love as I can?"

But what if the work – the art, the writing, the music, the cross-dressing – isn't always good? What if the good, moreover, is the enemy of the great? Could Franco be a great movie star, and an even better actor, if he wasn't so busy being halfway promising at everything else?

A life in brief

Born: 19 April 1978, Palo Alto, California.

Family: His father ran a shipping container business, his mother was an author and editor. Has been in a relationship since 2006 with actress Ahna O'Reilly.

Education: Palo Alto High School, then UCLA. Dropped out in his first year to be an actor.

Career: Got his break on TV series Freaks and Geeks in 1999; his first major film role, in Whatever It Takes, was in 2000. Appeared in the three Spider-Man movies, Knocked Up; In the Valley of Elah; Milk; Eat Pray Love and, most recently, 127 Hours and Howl. Also juggles careers as a writer, an artist and a musician. Tomorrow he co-hosts the Oscars with Anne Hathaway.

He says: "Why not do as many things I love as I can? As long as the work is good."

They say: "When we first met him, we thought he was stoned. I remember speaking to a casting director and she said, 'He does that to keep you at a distance at the beginning, so that he can suss you out.' You think he's sleeping, but in fact he's hyperactive. He never rests." Danny Boyle, director of 127 Hours

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